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Officials Cancel Controversial Trip of North Korean Vessel to Japan - 2003-06-08

A controversial North Korean vessel scheduled to dock in Japan on Monday apparently will not be arriving as planned. The cargo and passenger ferry has not left its home port in North Korea.

Japan had prepared an unprecedented reception for the Man Gyong Bong 92. Authorities say they were prepared to conduct the nation's largest customs inspection of the North Korean vessel. Protestors, including 200 truckloads of extreme right-wingers, also planned a noisy greeting for the vessel.

But on Sunday, the ferry's shipping agent in Niigata said it received a brief message from the captain of the Man Gyong Bong - "sorry, no departure." There was no indication when the ship might embark on the 20-hour journey to Niigata.

Japanese government officials last week vowed to closely inspect the vessel when it arrived. Those pronouncements came after media reports that the ship had been smuggling missile parts to North Korea and bringing directives to Pyongyang's spies in Japan.

The vessel also is believed to carry back to North Korea much-needed cash and goods for the poverty-stricken state. The ship made 23 trips to Japan last year but has made only one so far this year.

Local officials in Niigata this month had called on the central government to ban the vessel from Japan. For years, the ship has called regularly, little noticed by the Japanese public. But tensions over North Korea's efforts to build nuclear weapons and Pyongyang's admission it had kidnapped at least a dozen Japanese citizens in the 1970's and 1980's have angered many in Japan.

Niigata residents appeared to breathe a collective sigh of relief Sunday afternoon when it became apparent the ferry, North Korea's only direct link with Japan, would not be arriving.

Supporters of Japanese kidnapped by North Korea react as an official in Niigata announces that the ship's port call Monday had been canceled.

Officials of the association representing North Korean citizens in Japan deny the allegations of spying and smuggling. The group, known as Chongryon, says the ferry service is vital because it allows its members to visit their ancestral homeland.